Casleton's Monthly: Colombia Edition
News & Politics
Welcome to another edition of Casleton’s Monthly. This month I discuss the recently released report on Colombia’s half-century civil conflict and the US role in sponsoring the Colombian military. You can find past newsletters here. As usual, let’s start with stories from the past month.
In the news:
First, an interview with a Harvard Professor Jamie Martin on the origins of the IMF and World Bank. These institutions are often criticized for imposing neo-liberal economic policies on developing nations, but Martin argues that the problems with these institutions far pre-dates the neo-liberal turn of the 1970s.
Second, a report on the exploitation of poor Mexican laborers by oil giant BP. The oil company pays workers a pitifully low wage to do work that helps “offset” the carbon impact of BP’s business.
Third, a discussion of possible end-game scenarios for the Ukraine-Russia conflict by Rajan Menon. Pieces like this are starting to multiply as Western leaders supporting Ukraine are beginning to ask what their long-game strategy is, now that the war does not seem to be quickly tipping in either country’s favor.
Essay: Setting the Human Rights Record Straight for the US in Colombia
For over 5 decades, from 1964 to 2016, Colombia existed in a state of extraordinarily violent civil conflict. On the one side were Colombia’s military and right-wing paramilitary groups. On the other side were leftist guerrilla groups. The main guerrilla group (the FARC) and the Colombian government reached a peace deal in 2016, which has ushered in a period of relative peace, despite some ongoing violence. One result of the peace deal was the creation of a Truth Commission to document the manifold atrocities of the conflict. The Commission released its first report on June 28, reaching almost 900 pages.
The report is entirely in Spanish, so I received translation help from Daniel Del Bosque (many thanks to him) in order to look more closely at what the report says about the US’s role in the conflict. It is imperative for US citizens to become more aware of their country’s role in Latin America — especially when it comes to grave human rights violations and the suffering of innocent peasants and leftist activists. To put it mildly, the US record in the region does not inspire confidence in the US’s repeated claims to stand for democracy and human rights in the world.
The report is clear that Colombia followed the US’s lead in developing its internal security framework. From the 1950s onward, the report says, Colombia adopted the US’s policy orientation in the process of receiving military supervision and military aid: “first, the war against communism; second, the war against drugs, and third the war against terrorism.” No matter which of these three phases, there was a common element to Colombia’s strategy — to treat a significant portion of the Colombian population (like peasants and leftists) as “internal enemies.” This led to widespread violence not only by the Colombian military but by right-wing paramilitaries against large swathes of civil society.
US involvement came in two stages. The first stage was the early 60s, when the US sent military supervisors to help the Colombian military develop counterinsurgency plans. The cornerstone of this plan was the use of paramilitary groups. In the following couple of decades, the US did not invest in Colombia’s military, focusing instead on El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, channeling hundreds of millions of dollars into militarizing these countries. It was at the end of the Cold War, in the late 80s and early 90s, that the US fully turned its attention to Colombia. The report notes that the war on drugs and the war on terror were eventually combined into a general framework of fighting against “narcoterrorism.” Human Rights Watch has documented the impact of this approach on Colombian society:
“Under the stated objective of fighting drugs, the U.S. has armed, trained, and advised Colombia’s military despite its disastrous human rights record. Strengthened by years of U.S. support, the Colombian military and its paramilitary partners instead have waged a war against guerrillas and their suspected supporters in civil society, including members of legal political parties, trade unionists, community activists, and human rights monitors. Far from moving to address the mounting toll of this war, the U.S. has apparently turned a blind eye to abuses and is moving to increase deliveries of military aid, including weapons, to Colombia. As U.S. military support for El Salvador waned in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Colombia emerged as the hemisphere’s top recipient of U.S. military aid. Since 1989, the U.S. has provided $322 million in military aid to Colombia, nearly all on a grant (give-away) basis.”
Saying that the US is “turning a blind eye” to these abuses is too generous — this is straightforward state financing of terrorism. Even if we admit that the US has an interest in stemming the drug trade, it does not permit the arming of groups that repeatedly commit human rights violations. But it is doubtful how much US policy is really geared toward stemming the flow of drugs, as opposed to simply engaging in counterinsurgency operations against leftist groups. As the academic Victoria Sanford has pointed out, the CIA used Colombian cocaine to produce funding for the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and the US supported the Colombian military exclusively spraying FARC held coca fields and not those run by right-wing paramilitaries.
Fighting narcoterrorism, though, certainly functions as a convincing narrative to channel military funds to Latin America. As the Truth Commission’s report notes, the culmination of US policy in Colombia was the creation of Plan Colombia. The Wall Street Journal reported, in 2000, that “the Colombians, with heavy coaching from the Americans, crafted "Plan Colombia," a $7.5 billion program of political reform, crop substitution and counter-narcotics aid to be financed jointly by Colombia, by drug-consuming countries in Europe and the U.S., and by international lenders. The U.S. share would be $1.6 billion, most of it military aid[.]” Despite some skepticism from Congress, President Clinton supported the plan, and its implementation represents a line of continuity running from the Clinton years into the Bush 2 years.
This funding was approved despite the fact that the CIA knew about concerted efforts between the Colombian military and paramilitaries to kill members of left-wing political parties and peasants. The New York Times has accessed previously classified documents that were used in the writing of the Truth Commission’s report, documents which disclose the CIA’s awareness of the violence against non-combatant leftist activists and the use of paramilitaries by oil companies. This is in addition, the Times report notes, to a 2003 document that
“hints at one of the grimmest chapters of the war, called the false positives scandal. In that case, the Colombian military is accused of killing thousands of civilians during the presidency of Álvaro Uribe and trying to pass them off as combat deaths, in an effort to show that it was winning the war.”
Such revelations, horrific though they are, hardly convey the suffering of the Colombian people over the course of the long conflict. The toll of the dead reaches above 450,000 and the number of displaced is in the millions. This is to say nothing of the widespread use of torture, overwhelming used by right-wing paramilitary groups as a tool of war and terror.
While the Commission’s report is meant to help the people of Colombia process the violence of the conflict and begin a process of reconciliation, the US public has much to learn about how its country uses state terror as a tool of foreign policy. Because this information is released decades after the fact, with most of the responsible parties out of office, it is likely to be met with an attitude of passive acceptance. What can be learned for the future, though, is the willingness of the US to rely on violence to carry out its foreign policy goals. Since the beginning of Russia’s war on Ukraine, it has become common to criticize the outdated talk of “spheres of influence.” One only hopes that such criticism will be applied equally to the US’s posture toward Latin America.